by Schuyler Rooth
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On Earth Day, Words Matter When Considering a Warming Planet

By Schuyler Rooth, Senior Manager, Content Intelligence

It’s not climate change but rather a climate emergency. That’s the consensus from more than 13,000 scientists, signatories to a report published in January 2021, which documents the myriad adverse effects of a planet warming due to human activity. Now, a global journalism initiative called Covering Climate Now — involving 400 media outlets, including CBS News, Scientific American, The Guardian, The New Republic, and others — is urging media outlets to use more intense language to match the moment.

Covering Climate Now explained its decision:

Why “emergency”? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately.

Hitting the right climate register to motivate action

Persado agrees — words do matter. Or more precisely, the “right” words can motivate or suppress action, depending on the context. Persado’s natural language generation (NLG) AI works by categorizing words and word phrases along a continuum of 15 emotions (see image), which allows the AI to test different combinations to see which emotions resonant and what compels an audience to take the actions a client wants to achieve. Though Persado has only run a handful of experiments on climate-related campaigns in the context of retail, there are a number of general observations to make about the emotions we associate with “change” vs. “emergency”.

Depending on the context, the word “change” can tap into a reader’s sense of Curiosity — as in, “There are some changes coming your way…” Or it may gently nudge a reader’s Attention — as in, “We’ve changed your billing date.” Given that Curiosity generally performs in the middle of the pack among action-motivating emotions, saying that societies need “change” isn’t enough for that message to rise to the top of the priority list. This is especially true if there are more pressing issues at hand, such as a global pandemic, economic hardship, social justice protests, media disinformation, and so on.

Momentum seems to be accelerating in favor of taking decisive action to save the planet. Last week, more than 300 corporations signed an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden urging him to take the lead in setting ambitious climate goals. On Earth Day, the president announced that the U.S. would commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Given the growing energy in favor of action, calling an emergency serves as a higher-priority Attention grabber. Like yelling “Fire!” in a theater, a word like “emergency” may compel an audience to drop everything and tune in. On the scale of language intensity, it lands at a much higher register than “change” would.

On Earth Day, the right words can reflect the significance of the moment

Fair warning: stronger emotional intensity might not produce higher performance in every scenario. Words that capture Attention tend to be among the highest performers in Persado experiments. Messages that are gratuitously alarming, however, can backfire. As a rule, people don’t like being made to feel anxious or nervous, especially when it’s unclear what they can do to alleviate that anxiety.

Most critically, words always perform in context. Timing, desired action, the recipient’s sense of control or agency — among other factors — can radically affect response. At Persado, the only way to know whether “emergency” or “change” will inspire more immediate action is to run an experiment. We help organizations know with mathematical certainty that they’re using the best-performing language with their audiences. This Earth Day, let us test yours in service of the planet.